5 Key Takeaways from SXSW 2018 for Conscious Business Leaders

The annual SXSW Conference that sweeps through the city of Austin, Texas, each March has been described as the “world’s fair of the future.” Presenting an eclectic mix of creative innovations spanning film, music, and technology from around the globe, the festival provides a glimpse into the pioneering ideas — from VR/AR to startup and tech creations — that are shaping today’s and tomorrow’s world. This year, celebrating its 25th anniversary, SXSW 2018 also marked the launch of an expanded social impact program that was not only contained within its dedicated conference track, but permeated conversation across the festival’s 24 wide-ranging tracks. Here are my top takeaways for conscious business leaders from the social impact conversation at SXSW 2018:

Reflections on the State of Impact Convening

Thirty years ago a group of young American business leaders began to convene values-driven entrepreneurs, investors, and capacity builders as a way to help catalyze a burgeoning impact movement. In the years to come others followed suit: dozens of conferences showcasing business innovations that were both financially sustainable and beneficial for society and the environment began to sprout — both as a response to Reagan-era consumerism and “Greed is Good” mentality, and as a declaration that business could be a force for good.

Founders of pioneering conferences, such as Social Venture Network (SVN) and Investors’ Circle, sparked a new way of thinking about the purpose of convening. They also incubated and inspired the creation of a new crop of impact-focused conferences and networks, including Net Impact and B Lab, that have spread innovative business ideas across the globe and emboldened a new generation of impact-focused business leaders over the past decades.

5 Top Mapping and Directory Resources for Social Impact Leaders

The impact ecosystem is expanding, and while local and regional ecosystem mapping efforts — such as UnLtd USA’s Austin Social Entrepreneurship Network Map, Cogent’s Twin Cities Impact Investing Ecosystem Map, and Root Change’s Global Impact Investment Map (GIIMAP) of the impact investment community in Mexico and Central America — have taken shape in the past few years, a new wave of mapping initiatives are sprouting that enable leaders to better understand and navigate the larger impact ecosystem. Here are a few of those such resources that will help you see the big picture and connect the dots in between.

Convening for Impact: Latino Policy Summit ‘Day of Action’

This May the Latino Community Foundation (LCF) convened 300 Latino community leaders, advocates, and elected officials at its fourth annual Latino Policy Summit to discuss policy solutions that will positively impact Latino communities in California. The Summit showcased an array of impact-focused convening best practices, including an inspirational keynote from Xavier Beccera, the first Latino Attorney General of California, and a march to the State Capitol. As the largest network of Latino philanthropists in the country, LCF is a connector and convener who knows a thing or two about the power of convening for impact. Conveners.org’s Nayelli Gonzalez spoke with Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, CEO of LCF, about the role that convening plays to LCF’s growing network, and how the organization convenes for impact.

Why Capitalism Needs Conscious Leadership

For the past 30 years, a small yet growing faction of leaders have pioneered frameworks that are an antidote to single-bottom-line thinking — notably the Natural Stepshared value and the triple bottom line. While those and other frameworks have focused on reinventing capitalism by shifting business strategy, accounting principles and operational standards, a new movement called conscious capitalism offers a holistic approach that puts people and moral conscience at the center of business practices.

What the Outdoors Industry Is Doing About America’s Changing Landscape

Daniela Lopez grew up in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, a concrete jungle worlds away from the lush green forests and smells of eucalyptus familiar to any wilderness hiker. While only miles from the nearest state and national parks, Lopez had never gone hiking or backpacking until the age of 14, when she joined a guided youth development backpacking trip that took her from the noisy city streets of San Francisco to the majestic shores of Big Sur.

That experience not only changed her view of the outdoors, but it also transformed her perception of what she was capable of achieving. Years later, Lopez now works with the organization that led her first excursion, the nonprofit Bay Area Wilderness Training, and takes city youth to the outdoors.

Lopez’ story reflects a growing trend in the engagement and mobilization to get diverse youth outdoors – a movement that the outdoor industry considers not only valuable, but necessary.

What It Means to be a Responsible Tech Company

The world was abuzz earlier this month when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would donate 99 percent of his company shares to charitable causes over his lifetime. The announcement drew criticism about how the donation (currently worth $45 billion) would be apportioned, and for some it brought to light a bigger question about how tech giants decide to give back.

Billionaire tech philanthropy is nothing new. In October, when Square filed its initial public offering, CEO Jack Dorsey (of Twitter fame) announced that he would give 40 million of his shares, the equivalent of 10 percent of the entire company, to help underserved communities and “drive positive impact.”

And last month Bill Gates drew headlines when he announced that he would join more than 20 other billionaires – including Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Richard Branson of the Virgin Group and Marc Benioff of Salesforce – to launch a coalition that invests in clean energy projects around the globe.

Throwing money at causes doesn’t solve problems, but it certainly helps. It takes a lot more than dollar signs, though, to create lasting impact and be a truly responsible corporate citizen (tech or not).

Levi's Water Ambassadors: Employee Engagement Meets Consumer Education

Ask anyone who has children or has spent time around young ones, and they’ll tell you that kids love to remember random facts. That’s why it’s perfect that Levis Strauss & Co. has partnered with Project WET Foundation to develop custom water education curriculum and train Levi’s employees to teach young students about water conservation – a pilot program which employee volunteers kicked off last week as part of the company’s Community Day.

Called “water ambassadors,” LS&Co. employees from San Francisco, Shanghai and Singapore were trained by Project WET to go into classrooms and teach students around the world about their water footprints, all while promoting water literacy and awareness.

Fashion Revolution Day: A Global Call for Supply Chain Transparency

If you see people wearing their clothes inside-out today, don’t be alarmed. In support of Fashion Revolution Day, tens of thousands of people around the world are taking to social media today, snapping selfies, tagging brands and asking them “#whomademyclothes. In so doing, they’re inviting consumers to question the origins of what they wear and calling on clothing brands to take full responsibility for their supply chains.

“Ninety-five percent of brands don’t know where their materials come from, and 75 percent don’t know where all their clothes are cut and sewn,” said Maxine Bédat, co-founder of slow fashion brand Zady and U.S. co-chair of Fashion Revolution Day. “It’s absolutely a brand’s responsibility to know where their product is sourced. This is about pushing brands to have an answer to what should be a simple question.”

Cradle to Cradle Tackles the Fashion Industry

There are many reasons to be down on today’s fashion industry: water pollution, toxic chemicals, landfill waste, garment worker exploitation in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia and China – the list could go on. Yet, as we’ve read in our series on sustainable fashion, innovative groups and sustainably-minded apparel brands offer glimmers of hope that this $1 trillion industry is slowly changing course. The recent launch of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s Fashion Positive offers another reason to stay positive about the future of this industry.

Launched in 2014, Fashion Positive aims to retool the entire global fashion supply chain and help create more sustainable materials, processes and products. The initiative works with fashion brands, designers and suppliers to continuously improve how clothes are made by looking at the following five categories: material health, material use, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness.

The Little Black Dress Goes Zero Waste, Thanks to Robots

When Oprah Winfrey likes what you make, you know you’re in good company. Getting a shout-out in O magazine, not to mention being recognized as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People, is impressive – but there are far greater reasons to like Natalia Allen’s new collection. Allen’s attention to where the textiles in her designs come from, how the garments are constructed and how each dress is sold has created a new model for sustainable fashion that has made the fashion world take notice.

The simplicity in style of Allen’s new seamless collection should not be confused with simplicity in design: There’s much more to these little black dresses (which come in multiple hues) than meets the eye. Made by robots programmed to create zero waste, each dress in Allen’s collection is the product of science meeting design. Her garments are precision engineered down to the x- and y-axis, and the design and manufacturing process is more akin to making high-tech gadgets than traditional apparel.

What results are seamless, lightweight, modern dresses that fit like a glove – and make you feel good wearing them, in more ways than one. I spoke with Allen to learn more about what drives her purposefully-created clothes and how her approach to sustainability is to do more with less. 

A Brief History of Sustainable Fashion

Type the words ‘future’ and ‘fashion’ into any search engine, and you’ll get a stream of results on 3-D printing, wearable technology and e-commerce websites – sustainability is but a mere mention. Yet, the S-word has undeniably made its way into the modern apparel-making process and increasingly influences what lands on runways and store racks.

The fashion industry's growing focus on sustainable practices has even prompted business publications such as Forbes to hail “Green is the New Black.”

Through innovative business practices, the fashion industry has come a long way in improving environmental and social conditions along complex global supply chains. Still, it has a way to go. A brief look into the industry’s storied past illuminates how corporate style setters have responded to shifting consumer demands, market trends and natural resource constraints over the years – signaling what the future of sustainable fashion might hold.

Why is Slow Fashion So Slow to Catch On?

We’ve all been there before (or know someone who has): We’re strolling through our neighborhood mall and our eyes catch a glimpse of glossy signs inviting us to escape into a land of cotton and polyester. Dresses $8.99! Sweaters $9.99! Jeans $14.99! Once we step inside the brightly lit, chandeliered store, the mounds of perfectly folded garments, seductively postured manikins and catchy pop music have us hooked. Before we know it, we’re checking out at the register with a bag of reasonably priced clothes that we never planned on buying – and we’ve only spent $35. How can we resist?

For a generation of budget-conscious millennial shoppers, popping into stores like Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo and Zara – that offer trendy clothes at low prices – has become par for the course. In 2013 alone, those four fast fashion retailers generated a combined $48 billion in global sales. And a recent report by the financial services firm Cowen Group forecasts that fast fashion sales will increase 11 percent year-over-year through 2020.

The realized growth in the fast fashion market has been astounding – and it’s leaving conventional apparel retailers in the dust. The traditional apparel model of selling seasonal lines of clothing, manufactured and marketed months in advance, has been replaced by these bargain brands that rapidly respond to the latest fashion trends and live by just-in-time production. As a whole, consumers have been loving it; yet, recent events have shed light on questionable aspects of fast fashion’s modus operandi that are prompting some consumers to think twice about purchasing those $5 T-shirts.

Manufacture NY: The New Model for Sustainable Innovation

New York City’s apparel manufacturing sector is about to get a makeover: To reignite local fashion manufacturing and spur economic development, the city recently announced it will invest $3.5 million to help launch the fashion incubator Manufacture New York, a co-location center with sustainability in its DNA.

Founded by Bob Bland, a Brooklyn-based fashion designer, entrepreneur and community organizer, Manufacture NY will be the country’s first fully-integrated facility with on-site, on-demand manufacturing – taking the term “Made in the USA” to the next level. Part production hub, part incubator, part learning lab, part R&D lab, the 160,000-square-foot Brooklyn facility will advance sustainably-minded research, design and manufacturing for emerging designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs in apparel, textiles and wearable tech.

“Fashion is often viewed as innovative and forward looking, but when it comes to actual production in the U.S., it seems the sector has been slow to embrace new ideas or use sustainability as a driver for innovation,” said Patrick Duffy, Manufacture NY’s VP of sustainability and external affairs. “We’re trying to build a major center here and influence domestic manufacturing.”

The spirit of innovation certainly drives Manufacture NY’s unique model.

The North Face Introduces Locally Grown Hoodie

When you hear the words “locally grown,” images of leafy-green-lined farmer’s markets, multi-colored CSA boxes, and interestingly odd-shaped heirloom tomatoes may come to mind – and not necessarily a piece of clothing. Borrowing a cue from the local food movement, The North Face has developed an all-cotton hoodie that was grown, designed, cut and sewn within 150 miles of its corporate headquarters in California. The Backyard Hoodie, as it’s called, is the first in The North Face’s Backyard Collection, a line of products manufactured in the United States using locally sourced materials and resources.

The limited-edition men’s and women’s sweatshirt represents the brand’s commitment to connect with its regional textile supply chain and build products with local roots that have a positive local impact – a significant feat not common within the global apparel industry. In collaboration with the organizations FibershedFoxfibre, and the Sustainable Cotton Project, The North Face sourced the cotton used to make the Backyard Hoodie from California farmers who implement biologically-based practices that protect land, air and water resources and result in improved water and air quality, healthier soil, and reduced chemical exposure for farm workers and rural communities.

Beyond the source material, the Backyard Hoodie’s design was also intentional: Motivated to reduce waste, designers accounted for excess fabric in the design process and consequently lowered the hoodie’s waste percentage below the apparel industry average. This type of apparel production gives a new meaning to conscious design. I spoke with Adam Mott, director of sustainability at The North Face, to hear more about the making of the product from seed to sweatshirt, and why a locally grown product like this matters.

Why Taking Care of Your Apparel Workers is Good for Business

When the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory took the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh last year, the world’s eyes were fixed on what multinational apparel companies would do to ensure that a similar tragedy would not reoccur.

In the wake of the calamity, agreements to improve factory working conditions – such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the corporate-led initiative the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – were created, building retrofits and renovations were jump-started, and reparations were made. Notwithstanding the progress that Western companies, labor unions and local government continue to make to secure safe working conditions Bangladesh, several social enterprises are helping to advance the sustainability of the global apparel supply chain beyond safety compliance and toward a considered focus on business ROI and social impact.

The multi-trillion dollar global apparel industry – of which Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter (after China) – employs about 25 million garment factory workers, 80 percent of which are women. Historically, the conditions at a factory such as Rana Plaza have been less than ideal: Workers endure low wages, long hours and unexpected changes in daily schedules. Even more, in most societies that are home to low-wage garment factories, workers are culturally discouraged to complain when working conditions are trying – especially if you are a woman. Unfortunately, those cultural barriers and lack of communication channels have often been costly for factories. (Evidence suggests that Rana Plaza could have been avoided if factory management had listened to worker concerns.)

Slow Fashion Startup Zady Launches American-Made Private Label

While big apparel brands ramp up production of a slew of fashions to gear up for the holiday season, Zady, the e-commerce curator of sustainably made womenswear, menswear and accessories, is set to launch its own collection of ethical styles for the holidays — with one slight difference: It will only sell one item.

In the spirit of slow fashion, the New York-based startup plans to release items from its first collection one-at-a-time in the coming months. The initial private label piece, which will become available on their site in the coming weeks, is a knit wool sweater that was entirely designed and manufactured in the United States.

Zady prides itself in offering high-quality clothes and home goods that are made to last and provide an alternative to the world of disposable, fast fashion. Its new Essential Collection is an extension of that endeavor.

Balancing Commerce, Idealism and Yoga Pants: Q&A with prAna CEO

An early adopter of organic cotton and the first major brand to bring Fair Trade apparel to market, prAna has now joined the growing list of beloved green brands (think Annie’s Homegrown, Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine) to be gobbled up by the big guys. The California-based lifestyle brand best known for its climbing and yoga apparel was recently acquired by Columbia Sportswear– a move that will not only help the parent company, a historically cold-weather sports brand, expand its offering, but will also fortify the smaller brand with an operations platform that can help its sustainability mantra reach new global markets.

PrAna’s commitment to sustainability has set it apart from the rest from the start. In its early days, prAna’s founders would cut and sew clothing in their garage, craft hangtags made with homemade recycled paper, and ship orders to customers in boxes gathered from the local grocery store. The company was also an early proponent of renewable energy within the apparel industry, pioneering wind power through its Natural Power Initiative, for which it was recognized as an EPA Green Power Partner. PrAna has come a long way from making its garments in garages and delivering clothes in fruit boxes – today the company’s products are sold at 1,400 specialty retailers across the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia and its sales are expected to hit more than $100 million this year. All of this is expected to continue to grow in the wake of Columbia’s acquisition. The question on everybody’s minds is: “Will this acquisition change the company’s commitment to sustainability?”

Do One Thing: Lessons in Driving Employee Engagement

At Saatchi & Saatchi S we believe that employees are not only the heart and soul of a company, they are a company’s greatest asset in propelling and achieving its sustainability vision. At its most inspirational, employee engagement is also about magnifying the power of individual actions to effect large-scale change. 

Known most notably for our employee engagement work with Walmart, we have worked with a range of clients to energize workforces around sustainability and enhance corporate sustainability goals using a blend of strategy, engagement and communications expertise. What we’ve seen through our work with various companies are the great rewards that come with engaging employees — from supporting environmental initiatives that reduce corporate costs to fostering authentic connections between employees and their communities.

Most recently, Saatchi S worked with AT&T’s Citizenship & Sustainability team to design an employee activation and internal communications platform called Do One Thing(DOT), for which the company received the 2013 CSR Award for Workplace Innovation presented by PR News. DOT positions employees as change agents within AT&T and empowers them to choose and implement sustainability-oriented actions that positively impact their lives, communities and the company. We worked with AT&T to develop, prototype, and scale DOT throughout the organization to integrate sustainability into its corporate culture and inspire positive behavior change among its employees. 

Music Festivals: Think Outside the (Green) Box

When you’re at a music festival, ears attuned to pulsating drum beats and hypnotic vocals, the last thing on your mind is saving Mother Earth. Yet, a growing number of music festivals across the country – and world – are going to great lengths to go green. From investing in carbon offsets to promoting waste diversion and offering attendees locally sourced food, beer and wine, large-scale music events from Tennessee to California are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. All this is good and well, but the most sustainable step that music festivals can take has nothing to do with going green.

I recently had the opportunity to think through how the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, a festival that takes place in San Francisco’s historic Golden Gate Park every year, could take their commitment to sustainability to the next level.

The festival is already considered one of the greenest festivals around and boasts a robust sustainability platform. However, the more we dug into the core of the festival’s sustainability mission, the more it became clear that to become truly sustainable (and differentiate itself in the long-term) the music festival needs to think outside the green box.